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The Pipe Rolls

The Pipe rolls, sometimes called the Great rolls, are a collection of financial records maintained by the English Exchequer, or Treasury. The earliest date from the 12th century, and the series extends, mostly complete, from then until 1833. They form the oldest continuous series of records kept by the English government, covering a span of about 700 years. The early medieval ones are especially useful for historical study, as they are some of the earliest financial records available from the Middle Ages. A similar set of records was developed for Normandy, which was ruled by the English kings from 1066 to 1205, but the Norman Pipe rolls have not survived in a continuous series like the English.

They were the records of the yearly audits performed by the Exchequer of the accounts and payments presented to the Treasury by the sheriffs and other royal officials; and owed their name to the shape they took, as the various sheets were affixed to each other and then rolled into a tight roll, resembling a pipe, for storage. They record not only payments made to the government, but debts owed to the crown and disbursements made by royal officials. Although they recorded much of the royal income, they did not record all types of income, nor did they record all expenditures, so they are not strictly speaking a budget. The Pipe Roll Society, formed in 1883, has published the Pipe rolls up until 1223.

The pipe roll

The sheriffs' accounts form the core of the early pipe rolls. The sheriff was the king's representative in the county, and was responsible for collecting revenues from the royal estates and other sources. The rolls also record some items of expenditure by the sheriffs, and include lists of lands formerly part of the royal estates, which had been given to private individuals. In addition, there are payments of feudal dues and taxes, 'offerings' to the king in connection with legal disputes, records of penalties (amercements) imposed by the itinerant justices, and miscellaneous items such as enrolled charters. As time went on and the volume of administration increased, some of these categories were removed into separate series of records (including, in the 14th century, the accounts of the royal estates).

The early pipe rolls provide a useful source of information from a period when few other records are available. Those from the late 12th and early 13th century have been published with indexes, mainly by the Pipe Roll Society. It is therefore fairly straightforward to search the early pipe rolls for entries relating to particular names (although see the note on surnames in early records). However, interpreting the entries may be less straightforward. Nearly all the printed texts are in Latin, and many of the earlier volumes use 'record type' to reproduce the highly abbreviated style of the originals.

Beyond this, while the significance of many entries may be fairly clear, interpreting others may require some knowledge of the administrative procedures. One other point to bear in mind is that many of the entries record outstanding debts, which were presumably copied from roll to roll until they were paid - and, of course, information copied from year to year may easily become anachronistic.

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All the information here should only be used as a guideline and must not be relied on as primary evidence.